"Are you hollering down the rain barrel?
Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel?
Are you sitting in the catbird seat?"

The Catbird Seat by James Thurber

The catbird is a North American songbird (Dumetélla carolinénsis) long tailed and short winged slender billed birds that sing loudly from conspicuous perches. It's the only bird that is a combination of plain dark gray feathers, with rusty colored coverts along with a distinctive black cap. Put these three identifiers together along with its song you're looking at a catbird! The song is rather squeaky with little or no repetition considering it is a member of the same family as the mockingbird, more of a mewling call like a cat almost hence the name. Although it's a poor imitator, ornithologists suggest that the expression catbird seat may arise from the fact that they're good 'sentinels'. "They recognize predators and are very vocal about announcing that to other birds around."

The expression sitting in the catbird seat, which means ' to be in an advantageous situation or position' originated from the southern United States sometime in the 19th century, although its first recorded use in print didn't come until 1942 in James Thurber's short story called The Catbird Seat (The Thurber Carnival). A clever and very funny tale of a mousy man who schemes to murder a woman in his office who is driving him crazy with her annoying litany questions:

    "Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?"
Mr. Martin, the meek and usually mild mannered accountant asks his assistant to explain what this woman (oh so cleverly named "Ulgine Barrows" by the esteemed Mr Thurber) explains:

    "She must be a Dodger fan. Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions....' sitting in the catbird seat' means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him."

If you are a sport's fan you may already be familiar with this expression, the field of sports has produced some of the most colorful slang and metaphors in the English language. Indeed it was Red Barber a real person, as well as a sportscaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s and '50s, who first coined the phrase sitting in the catbird seat. In his book Rhubarb in the Catbird Seat he tells that he had picked it up from a man who trounced him in a poker game years before. "Inasmuch as I had paid for the phrase," said Barber, " began to use it. I popularized it, and Mr. Thurber took it." And, of course, immortalized it.



Robbins, Bruun, Zim, Singer, "Catbird," A Guide to Field Identification Birds of North America, 1966.

The Maven's Word of the Day:

The Word Detective:

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.